With this album, Daniela Pezzo offers a journey inside the unconventional. While listening, you are encouraged to find your own way through an intricate web of apparently invisible threads spanning from the nineteenth to the twentieth century and connecting Romantic, tonal works with American experimentalism. Off-Balance is a precarious state that could precede a ruinous fall, but it allows for seeing things from a new perspective, and feeling them with a new intensity. Classical pieces and techniques which marked the evolution of contemporary piano playing are juxtaposed, thus disorienting the listeners but at the same time liberating their auditory experience.
However, Off-Balance is not only a matter of perception. The pieces collected in this album also stem from, and somehow reflect, a moment of crisis or transformation for their authors. The exploration of new creative paths, the confrontation with suffering, with loss, but also with the joy of a new encounter, pushed the composers beyond a condition of stability. Such displacement inspired works that are different in character, but all charged with a strong, yet intimate energy emanating from the instrument.
The album is presented in a cyclic form. Works by John Cage, the ascetic of silence and sound, descend into deep, personal atmospheres culminating with Scriabin’s ominous “Poème”, followed by a final reconciliation.
The pieces by John Cage (1912–1992) date back to the American composer’s years of activity at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. There, he was serving as accompanist and composing new music for choreographer Bonnie Bird. The creation of pieces to be choreographed provided him with numerous occasions to experiment with different timbral solutions. In the early 1940s, he developed the technique of ‘prepared piano,’ in which different objects and materials are placed directly onto the strings of the instrument. Thanks to this preparation, the partially obstructed strings struck by the hammers created a new sonic palette and gave the piano the richness of a tiny percussion ensemble.
This unexpected richness stimulates the ears, activating a more aware way of listening. For this reason, a piece by Cage for prepared piano has been chosen to introduce the program presented in this album. Root of an unfocus was written for a choreography by Merce Cunningham, who would become Cage’s lifelong artistic and romantic partner. The piece premiered in New York in 1944 as part of Cunningham’s first solo recital, marking a new phase in the dancer’s career and in the two artists’ collaboration. The music of Root of an unfocus is rigidly segmented into portions with different metric and rhythmic patterns, avoiding any narrative intention. It appears extremely structured, and it creates an unsettling atmosphere due to the sounds deriving from the piano preparation. Therefore, it anticipates some of the anxiety that pervades the rest of the album.
With the next piece, by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), we start our descent in the intimate and then dramatic core of the album. V mlhách (In the Mists) is Janáček’s last major piano work, a suite of four movements composed following a period of creative dejection. With his works repeatedly rejected by opera houses in Prague at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Czech composer went through a phase of discouragement, during which he left many pieces incomplete and destroyed several others. His personal life was also put to the test with the loss of his daughter Olga in 1903, after already having lost her younger brother Vladimir more than a decade previously. In such a tragic context for the composer, the award he received in 1912 from the Klub Prátel Umení (Friends of Art Club) in Brno for the composition of V mlhách and its publication the following year represented a pivotal moment in his career. The four pieces of this suite revolve around soft, melancholic keys such as D flat major, B flat minor, and D flat minor, while the frequent use of metric irregularities (including the recurring measures in 1/4 and 1/8) depict an unpredictable and disquieting character. In the light of the hardship Janáček was undergoing while composing V mlhách, it is hard to think that the work was not affected by the composer’s biography during those fateful years.
Another musical gem came out of tragic circumstances for its author in the heart of the Romantic era: the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), the last work composed by Robert Schumann (1810–1856). The inspiration for the theme on which the variations are based is of mysterious origin. According to the composer’s wife Clara Wieck, the theme was dictated to Schumann by spirits on a winter night in 1854, and in the following days he started composing variations on that theme. Actually, many elements of the theme appeared in his previous compositions, starting with the second movement of his violin concerto in D minor. The anecdote about the spirits thus appears to confirm the state of mental confusion affecting the composer’s final years. A few days later, he would attempt suicide, and eventually would retire in the Endenich asylum for the last two years of his life.
The Geistervariationen were published posthumously only in 1939, having been kept private by Wieck. They are delicate, intimate, and tender, with little opportunity for digression from the character of the theme. They include only some rhythmic changes and a canon and leave no space for virtuosity. The atmosphere they conjure is celestial like the voices dictating the theme to the composer. The atmosphere becomes only partially darker in the fourth variation in G minor, while Pezzo’s rendition of the last variation, where the melody appears fragmented by syncopation, suggests an inner, unresolved turmoil.
The transition from intimacy to a more dramatic expression is accompanied by a small selection of pieces from the collection Makrokosmos by American composer George Crumb (*1929). Makrokosmos consists of four volumes, the first two being cycles of twelve character pieces for amplified piano. Each piece in the first two cycles is associated with a zodiac sign and dedicated to a person, whether a friend, a role model, or the composer himself. With Makrokosmos, a clear reference to Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos collection for solo piano, Crumb creates a visionary universe made of fascinating suggestions, inspiring and obscure references, thus destabilizing the listeners.
The selection presented here starts with Dream Images (Love-Death Music), taken from the first cycle published in 1972; it is a soft piece nostalgically punctuated by fragments of Frédéric Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. 66. It is associated with the Gemini sign and dedicated to Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, author of a collection of Fourteen poems on Death and Love.
The second piece, taken from the second cycle published in 1973, is called A prophecy of Nostradamus, with reference to the infamous astrologer of the Renaissance. It is associated with Aries and accompanied by a score in the shape of a circle, with a canone enigmatico at the center that can be read also upside-down. Daniela Pezzo comments as follows: “I find the shape of the score particularly interesting: perhaps it represents the world, perhaps a crystal ball. […] the symmetrical structure of Crumb’s piece, and especially the canone enigmatico is fascinating, since the same material, the very same figures can mean one thing and their very opposite by simply rotating the page”. This effect is not unlike Nostradamus’s prophecies, which were enigmatic enough to appear always true.
The third piece, also taken from the second cycle, is Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza apocalittica) and is associated with Scorpio. It is an explosive piece that references the battle cry of the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor, a cry that the performer is required to repeat at the end of the piece.
The last dramatic piece of the album is the “poem” Vers la flamme (Toward the Flame) by Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915). Written in 1914, the piece belongs to the complex, incomplete work “Mysterium”, a performance influenced by the Russian composer’s synesthesia and involving all five senses. The piece starts in pianissimo, but its stillness is disturbed by some ominous thematic elements in which descending and ascending semitones prevail. The piece, filled with tremolos, conveys the threat of a burning flame and represents, together with Crumb’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, the climax of tension in the technique and expressivity presented in this program.
To transition out of this atmosphere, another piece for prepared piano by Cage is offered to the listener: And the Earth Shall Bear Again, another choreographed piece written for dancer Valerie Bettis and performed for the first time in New York in 1942. Its percussive rhythms and repetitive melodic fragments evoke a pagan fertility ritual that, after the tumultuous journey through the previous pieces in the album, prepares for the final, pacifying gesture.
This comes in the form of a transcription by Max Reger (1873–1916) of Morgen, the Lied by Richard Strauss (Op. 27 n. 4). The text, written by John Henry Mackay, was set to music as an homage for Strauss’s wife Pauline de Ahna. With this tender melody in G major, the listener is guided back toward the light, changing the perspective once more. Mackay’s words “Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen” (and tomorrow the sun will shine again) take distance from the suffering and torment of the core of the pieces presented here, making a reconciliation with the world possible.
Liner Notes © Alberto Napoli
English revision by Joanna Helms
Daniela Pezzo started the study of piano at the age of ten in her hometown Pizzo in Calabria, Italy. She graduated from the classes of Konstantin Bogino and Laura Pietrocini, following their teaching for many years. She then continued her education at the Accademia Musicale Varesina under the guidance of Roberto Piano. In 2015 she was selected to study at the Hochschule für Musik in Basel and moved to Switzerland to complete a Master’s in Piano Performance and subsequently in Piano Pedagogy with Tobias Schabenberger. As a soloist, she has won several national and international competitions. She has performed in solo recitals, as a soloist with orchestras, and in chamber ensembles all over Europe. She has collaborated with musicians such as Chiara Franceschini, Diana Bonatesta, Maria Semeraro, Davide Macaluso, Jane Tiik, Sarah O’Brien, Felix Renggli and the Mitja Quartet. Between 2012 and 2014 she was founder and artistic director of the chamber music festival ‘Corrado Rollero’. Beside her concert activity, she currently works as a piano teacher and accompanist at the Regionale Musikschule Wohlen (Switzerland).
Alexander Scriabin: (b Moscow, 25 Dec 1871/6 Jan 1872; d Moscow, 14/27 April 1915). Russian composer and pianist. One of the most extraordinary figures musical culture has ever witnessed, Skryabin has remained for a century a figure of cultish idolatry, reactionary yet modernist disapproval, analytical fascination and, finally, aesthetic re-evaluation and renewal. The transformation of his musical language from one that was affirmatively Romantic to one that was highly singular in its thematism and gesture and had transcended usual tonality – but was not atonal – could perhaps have occurred only in Russia where Western harmonic mores, although respected in most circles, were less fully entrenched than in Europe. While his major orchestral works have fallen out of and subsequently into vogue, his piano compositions inspired the greatest of Russian pianists to give their most noteworthy performances. Skryabin himself was an exceptionally gifted pianist, but as an adult he performed only his own works in public. The cycle of ten sonatas is arguably of the most consistent high quality since that of Beethoven and acquired growing numbers of champions throughout the 20th century.
George Crumb (b Charleston, WV, 24 Oct 1929). American composer. Born to accomplished musical parents, he participated in domestic music-making from an early age, an experience that instilled in him a lifelong empathy with the Classical and Romantic repertory. He studied at Mason College (1947–50), the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (MM 1953), the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (Fulbright Fellow, 1955–6), where he was a student of Boris Blacher, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (DMA 1959), where his teachers included Ross Lee Finney. In 1959 he accepted a teaching position at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After receiving a Rockefeller grant in 1964, he became composer-in-residence at the Buffalo Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. His first mature works, composed during these years, include Five Pieces for Piano (1962), Night Music I (1963) and Four Nocturnes (1964), in which delicate timbral effects combine with a Webernesque pointillism and echoes of a Virginian folk heritage to create the atmospheric chiaroscuro that became a trademark of his style.
John Cage (b Los Angeles, 5 Sept 1912; d New York, 12 Aug 1992). American composer. One of the leading figures of the postwar avant garde. The influence of his compositions, writings and personality has been felt by a wide range of composers around the world. He has had a greater impact on music in the 20th century than any other American composer.
Leos Janacek: (b Hukvaldy, Moravia, 3 July 1854; d Moravská Ostrava, 12 Aug 1928). Czech composer. His reputation outside Czechoslovakia and German-speaking countries was first made as an instrumental composer, with a small number of chamber and orchestral pieces written between his operas, which he considered his main work. The balance has now been largely redressed and he is regarded not only as a Czech composer worthy to be ranked with Smetana and Dvořák, but also as one of the most substantial, original and immediately appealing opera composers of the 20th century.
Robert Schumann: (b Zwickau, Saxony, 8 June 1810; d Endenich, nr Bonn, 29 July 1856). German composer and music critic. While best remembered for his piano music and songs, and some of his symphonic and chamber works, Schumann made significant contributions to all the musical genres of his day and cultivated a number of new ones as well. His dual interest in music and literature led him to develop a historically informed music criticism and a compositional style deeply indebted to literary models. A leading exponent of musical Romanticism, he had a powerful impact on succeeding generations of European composers.